Fabric Row

Curb Market, 4th Street and South Street. Image provided by City of Philadelphia Department of Records

South 4th Street

Along with the eastern end of South Street, South 4th Street was the commercial center of Philadelphia's early 20th-century Jewish community. It was known as ‘Der Ferder" (the fourth) in Yiddish, and had been dubbed "Fabric Row" because of the past and present predominance of fabric and garment-related merchandise along the corridor. Many of the stores along Fabric Row began in the late 19th century as pushcarts selling fabric, produce, or other small items. Early 20th-century Fourth Street included kosher butcher shops, fish stores and dairy stores, plus fruit and vegetable carts and stands stretching from Lombard to Carpenter. Many of the original shops on Fabric Row remain, and are entering their third and fourth generation of family ownership.

In the 1920s, City Hall issued pushcart or curb market licenses for five dollars. Usually, three or four of the more prosperous businessmen would buy all the licenses and then re-sell them to push cart owners for 25 cents per day. During the heyday of the 4th Street pushcart peddlers (1910s and 1920s) it is estimated that approximately 500 Jewish men in the city made their living this way. There were also Jewish-run pushcart markets in deep South Philadelphia on South Seventh Street, and in Northern Liberties on North Marshall Street, which was another large, bustling Jewish enclave.

Pushcarts may have appeared haphazard and unprofessional, but many merchants made a living sufficient to eventually acquire storefronts (with their residences on the second story) and send their children to college. In fact, by the 1920s, many 4th Street peddlers and stand keepers had moved into dry goods and fabric stores; tailors and dressmakers came from all over the city to buy fabrics on 4th Street. Philadelphia labor played a role in every stage of the garment industry, from production to retail. Scores of Jewish immigrant women worked as seamstresses (alongside Italian immigrant women) in the numerous sweatshops throughout the city.

After World War II, there was a new level of sophistication and of prosperity on 4th Street. A few businesses expanded into wholesale as well as retail trade. In the 1950s, the city outlawed the pushcarts. Success and prosperity also led to out-migration of Jews from South Philadelphia after World War II. Many merchants who had lived above their stores now commuted from the Northeast section of the city or the northern and western Philadelphia suburbs.

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